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The Alessandro Nannini story



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Alessandro Nannini (Ayrton Senna)


Benetton-Ford B189 (McLaren-Honda MP4/5)




1989 Japanese GP


Did he earn it or was it handed it to him, gift-wrapped by the stewards of the Japanese Grand Prix? Well, he was there when it mattered and the victory will stand by his name forever. The fast brother of Italian rock singer Gianna Nannini took a win that was long overdue, and would surely have taken more in his own right, had a helicopter rotor blade not severed his hand - a cruel misfortune right at the moment his Grand Prix career was most probably at its zenith.

In the 22 October 1998 issue of Autosport magazine there was a short article about ten drivers who should have won Grands Prix and ten who shouldn't. I felt like taking issue with some of the inclusions in this piece, particularly the unfair treatment, in some cases, of the latter group. In my personal opinion, the most unfounded choice was Alessandro Nannini. Admittedly, the Italian's only Grand Prix win (the Japanese race in 1989 - on 22 October!) came after Ayrton Senna's exclusion, but that doesn't take all the facts into account.

The main story was of the infamous collision between Senna and his McLaren team-mate Alain Prost, which decided the World Championship. The Frenchman, already with the points advantage, cannily set his car up best to defend position. Although not starting from pole, he duly led from the off and ultimately refused to be intimidated when the inevitable challenge came. After the resulting incident at the chicane, Prost walked away, but Senna knew he needed to win so animatedly directed marshals to disentangle his car.

On the way through the downhill escape road, the engine bump-started and so the Brazilian carried on. Two laps later he had to pit for a replacement nosecone, handing Alessandro Nannini the lead. It lasted only two further circuits before Senna repeated the same overly aggressive passing attempt. The Italian thought it best to yield (although ten months later it was a different story) and Senna ran out the last three laps to victory. Or so he thought.

After some delay, Nannini came out to the podium as the winner, the stewards having excluded Senna for missing out the chicane. When the inevitable appeal hearing came around, it transpired that additional charges of dangerous and endangering driving had been added. Sandro was confirmed the winner, Alain the Champion, regardless of the results at the remaining round in Australia. Ayrton maintained the unfairness of it all, but to no avail.

But to say Nannini inherited the victory overlooks his performance in the event, and to suggest he was not a likely winner at all (as in the article), overlooks a lot of the evidence throughout his career. At Suzuka, firstly he had to be in the position to take over the lead. Having qualified sixth, he went into the race without the benefit of the latest development Ford HB engine, considered too much of a risk. His Benetton team-mate, Emanuele Pirro, was using the unit, and it enabled him to move through from 22nd to eighth by around half-distance. Sandro, nevertheless, ran fourth early on, fending off Nigel Mansell's Ferrari, and got past the sister car of Gerhard Berger when that hit trouble.

Now in third, only the dominant McLaren-Hondas remained ahead. Not unreasonably, Nannini felt it was unlikely that he could catch them, so opted on the side of caution and backed off slightly. Had he either not done this, or been using the faster engine (Pirro only went out because of a collision), he may well have been capable of staying closer to the leaders. Then he may have had enough in hand, after Senna resumed from the pits, to maintain the advantage to the end. He 'won' the race, but it was one he might have done anyway.

Alessandro's racing career started out in motocross, and he took up rallying in 1978, when he campaigned a Citroen, before swapping to a Lancia Stratos. He moved onto the circuits in 1980, competing in Formula Italia (sometimes quoted as Formula Fiat Abarth), and was the champion in 1981. He then moved up to Formula 2, where he showed some encouraging form with the Minardi team for three seasons, but was hampered by reliability issues, particularly with the BMW engines. The highlights were a second place at Misano in '82, and another at the old Nürburgring the following year.

1982 also saw his first outing in the Lancia Martini sports car team, finishing second at Mugello with Corrado Fabi. He continued with the team for four more years, when not tied up with single-seater commitments, and would take seven more podium finishes. These included a victory at Kyalami with Riccardo Patrese in 1984, the same year that Sandro set the fastest lap at Le Mans. Nannini, sharing the Lancia LC2 with Bob Wollek, was also leading the famous 24-hour race before gearbox troubles intervened.

After his impressive showings in both F2 and the endurance category, it came as something of a surprise when he was refused the necessary Formula One superlicence, and so he was unable to move up to Grand Prix level when Minardi made their début in 1985. He made the final step a year later, and was easily a match for his experienced and rapid team-mate, Andrea de Cesaris. Unfortunately, however, the cars were decidedly uncompetitive, and rarely lasted the distance either. Sandro made the finish only once (14th in Mexico), but was on terms with de Cesaris in qualifying such that, on average positions, he was slightly the better.

In 1987 there was no contest, as the Italian easily out-performed his new team-mate, Adrian Campos, and achieved some relatively high grid positions for the machinery. Race fortunes were largely unchanged, however, and the Minardi only finished in Hungary (eleventh). It was classified twice more, having run out of fuel not far from home. Fortunately, Nannini had done enough to get noticed, and ran as high up as seventh in Germany and eighth in Portugal before the inevitable problems struck. He had also set seventh best time in the wet first qualifying session at Spa-Francorchamps as well as seventh again in the similar warm-up in Detroit.

The 1988 season represented his big break, now signed to drive for the competitive Benetton team. He immediately made an impression with the attacking approach to his driving, in contrast to the smoother style of his team-mate, Thierry Boutsen. For this season, Benetton, in partnership with engine suppliers Ford, opted for the normally aspirated route, prior to the complete ban on turbo-charged powerplants in 1989. Although all the glory eluded the non-turbo runners, the Benetton's form was such that it was generally the greatest threat to the McLarens and Ferraris. Overall, Nannini had the edge on Boutsen, and was the leading non-turbo qualifier on four occasions, seven times getting into the top six on the grid.

He showed well in the races too, although his slightly wild streak prevented the level of consistency achieved by Boutsen. At Imola he battled spiritedly with Nelson Piquet for third place, but fell back due to the loss of feeling in his right foot caused by an inflamed nerve. This same problem was an even more painful handicap in Mexico, but he nevertheless came home as the first non-turbo runner, albeit in seventh. He was again first 'atmo' in France, this time sixth. Mechanical problems put paid to points in Monaco, Canada and Hungary, whilst an altercation with Michele Alboreto in Detroit had a similar effect.

His best racing performance came at Silverstone, where he survived a spin in the wet to take third place. Having run ahead of Mansell, and holding fastest lap at the time, he might have been second, but it was a great drive all the same. He did set the ultimate fastest lap at Hockenheim, where he made no mistakes, but had to fight back from a stop for repairs, finishing only 18th. In Belgium, he followed Boutsen home in fourth, but they were both later excluded because of fuel irregularities. Monza and Estoril were similar to Germany, in that he had to come from behind. In both events he made excellent but ultimately fruitless progress. Fifth fastest lap in Italy was half a second better than the next non-turbo. In Jerez he finished a brilliant third, having passed Senna on the way.

For 1989, following Boutsen's departure, Sandro was elevated to team leader. The biggest handicap that season was the late arrival of both the new car and the latest Ford engine. Nevertheless, he started well, with sixth in Brazil (and second fastest lap) and then third after another good run at Imola. In the first of these, the amazing début of Johnny Herbert in the second Benetton overshadowed Nannini's efforts somewhat. The Englishman finished in fourth position, whilst Sandro struggled with tyre wear, a broken wing support cable and, he felt, unhelpful pit signals. The San Marino race, however, had seen the Italian only beaten by the McLarens, although they were both a lap clear. After an eighth place in Monaco, he then had a good run to fourth in Mexico.

Fortunes were contrasting in North America. At the street race in Phoenix, Nannini managed a career best third on the grid, but he was to feel the after effects of a bad crash during warm-up, and soon withdrew from the race. In Montréal, Sandro made the decision to switch to slick tyres ahead of the race start, with conditions looking like going from wet to dry. Disorganisation put paid to this plan, as there were no officials on hand in the pitlane or proper signals to control things. The Italian followed Mansell on to the circuit, both drivers assuming the race had started. It hadn't and they were soon disqualified for no fault of their own.

Back in Europe, the Benetton was a better prospect than in the early races. In France, Nannini had an excellent run, including second best lap, and would have been second to Prost but for a suspension failure. He then repeated his 1988 third place at Silverstone, coming through on Piquet towards the end. Hockenheim saw him in fifth place, which may have become fourth, but then a sensor failure caused a terminal engine misfire. The results in Belgium and Portugal were fifth and fourth places, respectively.

After a disappointing showing in Jerez, there came the win in Japan, and this was followed up by a superb second in the drenched conditions of Adelaide, where he also had third best lap. Nannini finished the year in sixth position overall, an improvement of three places from the previous season, but the over-riding impression was that he could have done more. Nevertheless, apart from the race in Río, he had significantly outshone both Herbert and Pirro. For 1990 he was faced with a much more experienced team-mate in triple champion Nelson Piquet.

To begin with, Sandro was second best to the Brazilian and could do no better than tenth in the two races ahead of the European season. On reaching Imola, however, he rediscovered the form of his previous two events at the circuit and finished third, with Piquet fifth, and made the fastest lap time. He qualified fourth in Canada, ahead of Piquet, and led the race briefly before joining in the tyre stops. After this, he hit a ground hog and was denied another potential podium score. He came home fourth in Mexico, but lost out once again in France where late electrical problems cost him third place.

It was in Hockenheim where Nannini's season really took off. The Italian chose to fit the harder compound tyres in the race, which allowed him to run through non-stop. He took over the lead on lap eighteen, as others made stops, and then held off Senna's McLaren for sixteen laps, until a back-marker held him up briefly. He was second at the finish, and it seems that Senna began to recognise this car and driver combination as a potential threat.

The next race was at the Hungaroring, and Nannini felt justifiably unhappy that he didn't win it. Starting from seventh, he was up to second by lap 56, and was entirely certain he could pass Boutsen for the lead. Unfortunately, third-placed Senna felt he could intimidate his way through and caused a collision that ended Sandro's race. Even the chief designer at Williams, Patrick Head, felt that his man would have lost out to the Italian. As Senna was ultimately unable to get by the Belgian, it must have been doubly frustrating for Nannini.

The race in Spa followed the pattern set in Germany, only this time Senna just squeezed ahead when he resumed from the pits. Nannini fought all the way to the flag, but was finally relegated to fourth. Tyre wear and pit stop confusion ruined his chances at Monza, and in Estoril he had to take on new tyres when the plan had been not to. He was still sixth. In Italy, he had been targeted by Ferrari as a result of the confusion surrounding the future of Jean Alesi, who had three different offers. The contract didn't match the promises, so Nannini said no thanks and stuck to his recent renewal for Benetton. In the Spanish GP he finished third, echoing the same good result at the circuit two years before. It was to be his last Formula One race.

Before the Japanese race, which he may have won given developments, Sandro was involved in a helicopter accident that would surely end his career. Trying to land near his parents' home, the ground began to give way causing a disastrous crash that severed his right forearm. Ten hours of micro-surgery successfully re-attached the limb, but his racing future looked dim. The race at Suzuka went to Nelson Piquet, with replacement team-mate Roberto Moreno second. The McLarens and Ferraris had gone out, two of them controversially, leaving no challenge to the Benettons. Given Nannini's better racing performances in the preceding events, he should have been able to beat the Brazilian… Sandro was eighth in the championship.

Although he was keen to return, Formula One was, for the time being, out of the question for this pleasant and popular chain-smoking espresso addict, but Nannini was far from finished. In 1992 he made a comeback driving for Alfa Romeo in the Italian Supertouring series. In his first race he qualified on the front row and took the fastest lap. He went on to win three times, and ably backed up his team-mate, Nicola Larini, who took the championship. At the end of the season, he was given a run in a modified Ferrari F1 car and did quite well. However, a full-time return to Grands Prix was finally ruled out, and he remained committed to Alfa. The team transferred to the class one DTM series for 1993, and this time Nannini was hit with a frustrating level of unreliability from his machinery. In several instances, this was due to problems with the new gearbox and change mechanisms. With his arm's dexterity now restricted, the team developed a dual push gear lever system to help Sandro - one to change up and one to change down. These teething problems could not disguise his speed, which was as good as before, but it was again Larini who claimed the title. Nannini won twice and also took a number of poles and fastest laps.

For the 1994 season, Nannini was the initial pace-setter, with four early season wins. He also won both the non-championship races at Donington Park, but was excluded from the second of them when there was not enough fuel left for analysis. His season tailed off after this, as the new Mercedes-Benz came to prominence, and he ended it in fourth overall. In 1995, with all the DTM entrants also participating in the ITC mini-series, the Alfas were overshadowed by Mercedes, and Nannini managed only eleventh and fifteenth in the respective championships, with a best finish of third twice. The following year, the expanded ITC completely replaced the DTM, and became a close three-way tussle. Sandro, again with the Alfa 155 V6 TI, scored more victories than anyone in 1996 (seven), but was not as consistent as Manuel Reuter in the Opel and Bernd Schneider of Mercedes. This was again somewhat down to reliability, but he finished third overall, with further poles and fastest laps.

At the end of the season, he was offered the chance to test Benetton's B196 F1 car, but purely as an exercise. The ITC was cancelled following the withdrawal of two of the three manufacturers, so Sandro signed with the AMG Mercedes-Benz squad to contest the 1997 GT world championship. Problems with the CLK-GTR in some of the races handicapped the Italian and his co-driver, Marcel Tiemann, whilst team favourite Schneider was switched between cars to keep his challenge alive. Four times Nannini finished second, including from pole in Austria. Eight years after his Grand Prix victory at Suzuka, he achieved his final victory, in the seventh of eleven rounds, on that very same circuit. He and Tiemann were joint fifth in the series. In September 1998 Nannini announced his retirement.

Sandro Nannini's F1 record

The author appreciates receiving any further information of note regarding Sandro Nannini's career. You can contact him through the 8W Team.